Extremism and terrorism pose an existential threat to the peace, progress and prosperity of the country. Unfortunately, we have failed to eradicate terrorism despite the fact that we have spent 15 years fighting it.
The main reason for our failure seems to be our myopic approach towards the problem. Our current drive against extremism is based on the use of military power without any focus on the root causes. In addition, instead of using military power across the board, we have focused only on the tribal belt and grossly ignored the presence of religious outfits and their infrastructure in the rest of the country.
The Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) is doing a commendable job by mapping the presence of religious organisations across the country. The research conducted by PIPS is an eye-opener for our policymakers. According to PIPS research, there were six active religious parties in 1947: Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, Jamaat-e-Islami, Tehreek-e-Ahrar, Khaksar Tehreek, Jamiat-e-Ahle-Hadith, and the Shia parties. Slowly and gradually, new religious parties emerged and their numbers increased to 30 in 1979. The Zia era provided the breeding ground for the mushroom growth of religious parties and organisations. By 2002, the number of mainstream religious parties reached 239. Out of these, 21 parties engage in electoral politics, 148 parties have a sectarian agenda while 24 pursue militant jihadi objectives. In addition, 12 religious groups are striving to bring a caliphate system of governance while 28 are involved in missionary, educational and charities programmes.
Research shows that currently there are 232 active religious parties and organisations of various sects and religious schools of thought – Deobandi (53), Barelvi (39), Ahl-e-Hadith (18), Shia (20), Jamaat-e-Islami (18) and others (84).
These organisations have been further classified on the basis of their agenda and goals. The Deobandi school of thought has eight political, five non-political, 16 sectarians, 19 militant and five educational organisations. Similarly, the Barelvi school of thought has eight political, 11 non-political, 11 sectarian, four militant and five educational organisations. The Ahl-e-Hadith has three political, two non-political, six sectarian, five militant and two educational organisations. The Shia sect has three political, three non-political, 12 sectarian, one militant and one educational organisation. Similarly, there are three political, four militants and 11 educational organisations that are under the influence of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI). However, the JI has no sectarian organisation.
It is pertinent to mention here that these are the main organisations at the national and provincial levels and PIPS admits the presence of thousands of smaller groups at local levels.
Provincially, Punjab seems to be the main hub with the highest share of religious organisations (compared to other provinces). According to PIPS’ research, 107 organisations have their headquarters in Punjab. Describing Lahore as the capital of religious organisations, PIPS counts at least 71 organisations that operate from Lahore. Multan has the second highest numbers of such organisations – 18 in total. The number of religious organisations in AJK and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are 48 and 39, respectively, including small groups.
It is also a well-established fact that most of the leadership and leading figures of these organisations come from Punjab. For instance, the founding leadership of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad come from Punjab; and both the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad started in Punjab as well.
The right hand of General Zia and the silent soldier of the cold war, General (r) Akhthar Abdur Rahman, also belonged to Lahore and his sons are now prominent leaders of the PML-N. Similarly, the widely known godfather and mentor of the mujahideen, the late General (r) Hamid Gul and Col (r) Imam also came from Punjab. Most of the pro-Taliban scholars and religious leaders are said to be from Punjab.
The Punjabi Taliban are known to be the source of mentorship of the Taliban in the tribal belt. PIPS’ research counts at least 23 groups which are active under the name of the Punjabi Taliban: Lashkar-e-Zil, Asmatullah Muaviya Group, Qari Zafar Group, Badar Mansoor Group, Bengali Group, Amjad Farooqi Group, Gandapur Group, Usman Kurd Group, Maulvi Rafiq Group, Kaleemullah Group, Gul Hassan Group, Abdul Jabbar Group, Qari Yasin Group, Noor Khan Group, Fedayyan-e-Islam (an alliance of six Punjabi Taliban groups), Qari Shakeel Group, Maulvi Karim Group, Qari Imran Group, Qari Saifullah Group, Matiur Rehman Group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Malik Ishaq Group), Qari Ahsan Group, Baba Ji Group.
While there is such a huge presence of religious organisations in Punjab, no military operation has been launched against them in the last 15 years. Instead, the whole military power has been focused on Fata, KP, Balochistan and Sindh.
Fata and KP have witnessed dozens of major military operations since 9/11 but no military operation has been allowed in Punjab by the political elites. Operation Al-Mizan (2002-2006), Operation Zalzala (2008-9) and Operation Rah-e-Nijat (2009) were conducted in North Waziristan and South Waziristan. Similarly, Swat witnessed major military operations like Rah-e-Haq (2007) and Rah-e-Rast (2009). In addition, operations Sher-e-Dil (2008) in Bajaur, Sirat-e-Mustaqeem (2008) in Bara and Black Thunderstorm in Dir, Shangla and Buner were other major offensives in the region.
Sometimes a single region faces many military operations. For instance, under Operation Sirat-e-Mustaqeem, Bara, Khyber Agency witnessed three operations in 2008 codenamed operations Daraghlem (I have arrived), Beya Daraghlem (I have arrived again) and Khwakh ba de Shem (I will fix you). The same region faced three other operations in 2009: Khyber-I, Khyber-II and Khyber-III. In 2014, Operation Zarb-e-Azb was started with a main focus on North Waziristan.
Apart from Fata and KP, Balochistan and Sindh have also faced military operations conducted by the FC and the Rangers. On the other hand, Punjab seems immune from military operations despite the glaring reality of the strong presence of religious organisations on its soil.
The unwillingness of the ruling elite seems to be the main hurdle in the way of the effective implementation of the National Action Plan in Punjab. Though the Rangers have been called in Punjab under the new military operation, Raddul Fasaad, they seem to have less power compared to the Rangers in Sindh or the FC in Balochistan. The official notification shows that the Punjab government and the police will be in the driving seat.
Now the million dollar question is: can we win our fight against extremism with such an ill-planned, selective and myopic approach? The ruling elite needs to give up its vested interests and policy of favouritism in the fight against extremism. A comprehensive review of our current approach is needed with a strong pledge that we will never let our vested and parochial interests compromise the larger national interest. The ball is in the court of the ruling elite.